Maine’s Path to Statehood

The separation of Vermont from New York and Kentucky from Virginia went smoothly compared to the separation of Maine from Massachusetts. Although the Maine separatist movement began in the early 1780’s under the Articles of Confederation, it did not culminate until 1820 when the Constitution was in effect.

It is historically intriguing to contemplate the political dynamics that ensued when separatist movement in the “District of Maine” began agitating for division from the confederated state of Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. In a sense it was a rebellion within a rebellion, albeit generally peaceful and law abiding.

Although the patriots of Maine proved their loyalty to the cause of freedom on the battlefields of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, freedom from the taxes and sometimes heavy handed rule imposed by Boston proved a more protracted struggle. Between 1792 and 1819 there were five votes on separation, with separation losing the first and third but winning the second and fourth.

By 1819 separatist political developments in the District of Maine, statewide, nationally and internationally had made separation nearly inevitable. When separation won by 71% in the 1819 vote and a statehood constitution drafted by a convention in Maine was ratified by 92%, it was clear support for separation and statehood was too strong to be denied.

However, the Articles of Separation adopted by Massachusetts, giving its consent to separation as required by Article IV of the Constitution, created a deadline for separation to be completed or fail. Suddenly, the entire process was jeopardized when admission of Maine as a state was held hostage to the battle in Congress over expansion of slavery into territories incorporated under the Northwest Ordinance model that were on track to become states.

The admission of Alabama as a slave state in 1819 had created an even balance of slave and free states, but Missouri was seeking admission as a slave state, which would have given slave states a majority in Congress. To prevent that result admission of Missouri was linked to admission of Maine as a free state, but approval before the Massachusetts deadline was in serious doubt.

Unwittingly, after 30 years of struggle, the Maine separatist movement suddenly was at risk of having certain victory turned into certain failure. As fate would have it, however, a compromise was reached allowing Maine to be admitted as a free state, Missouri as slave, but prohibiting expansion of slavery into any other territory or state beside Missouri formed north of parallel 36 degree ’30 in any lands acquired under the Louisiana Purchase.

In that manner from far and deep in the anti-slavery northern states Maine and its admission as a free state unexpectedly became a linchpin in what history would come to know as the Missouri Compromise. That arrangement preserved slavery from its adoption in 1820 to 1857, when is was declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott case.

In that infamous case the Supreme Court correctly ruled that in keeping with the principles of the Northwest Ordinance the Constitution applied to incorporated territories, only to then rule that that former slaves were not citizens protected by the Constitution in either the territories or the states. On that basis, instead of protecting the rights of a fugitive slave in a free territory (Kansas), the court ruled that the due process and equal protection clauses prevented Congress from denying the property rights of slave owners in some states but not others.

Based on the Missouri Compromise, Maine was admitted to the union upon approval of its admission act in Congress on March 2, 1820, and signature of that act by President Monroe on March 3, making Maine a state on March 15, 1820.
 

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